A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Billable Hours and Ordinary Time: An Empirical Study

Before going to teach at Notre Dame Law School, I practiced law for three years in a large law firm setting. Like many young attorneys, I found the system of billing very difficult and in many ways alienating. After leaving practice for the academy, I wrote an article entitled "Billable Hours in Ordinary Time: A Theological Critique of the Instrumentalization of Time in Professional Life." The article contrasted the "billable hours" mentality with the view of time--and of human life--embedded in Catholic theological and liturgical practice. It was published in the Loyola University Chicago Law Review and, in a slightly different version, in Communio, over a decade ago.

To my great surprise, a couple of professors from Stanford Business School and the University of Toronto (whom I did not know) came across the article, and decided to see if they could empirically confirm some of my observations. (The idea that someone might actually test what normative thinkers like theologians and philosophers claim came as a great surprise to me!) According to a recent blog post, I guess they think I was right! Actually, anyone who has ever heard third and fourth year associates talking about billing hours wouldn't doubt it.

On a broader point, one of the reasons I object so much to the culture wars is that their focus on hot button moral controversies occlude other ways that Catholicism (and other religious traditions) might offer a helpful, critical perspective on life in America today. Religion isn't merely a delivery system for moral norms. The normative framework offered by religion extends beyond a list of moral "do's' and "don'ts." And I say that as a moralist.

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

The culture war is unavoidable for anyone who thinks that Christianity should supply the moral basis for public life, as it has generally done in the West since the fourth century.

Cathleen - your essay is marvelous. Some great stuff about the meaning of time and how we view it, how the church views it, and the corrosive effects of the instrumentalization of time. It's not just in law firms. Other professions, such as consultants and project managers, also need to keep track of "billable hours". As our service economy continues to evolve and firms create more specialized niches to induce other firms to "outsource" particular service, the billable-hours mentality can be expected to continue to increase.

Having once been deep in "the grip of the billable hour," I can relate to Prof. Kaveny's article and the study's major findings. Keeping track of one's professional life in six-minute intervals can have negative effects, especially when the 2,000 hour plus annual billing expectation is an ever present reminder of the importance of all those "tick-tocks" one was required to document and support.

"one of the reasons I object so much to the culture wars is that their focus on hot button moral controversies occlude other ways that Catholicism (and other religious traditions) might offer a helpful, critical perspective on life in America today. "We may have had, and may have lost, an opportunity to reswizzle the usual culture-war divides when there was a spate of unity across Catholic ideological lines in the wake of the original HHS contraception mandate announcement. The moment soon passed, as the topic of contraception (in which I have zero interest in relitigating!) can't be separated from the culture wars.But I wonder if there is a possibility to retrieve that unity that was there, and even effective in moving the political discourse, for that brief moment. What was that thing that united us, anyway? Let's take it as a given that it isn't contraception :-). And the bishops' bet that it is religious liberty doesn't seem to have been it, either. I'm guessing that it is a sort of pan-Catholic intuition about the importance of vibrant and independent Catholic institutions that serve society - schools, colleges, hospitals and so on.Now, I would derive a take-away from that intuition that may come across to many folks here as somewhat conservative - a take-away about the importance of mediating institutions in our social/cultural/public life. Probably there are other take-aways that would occur to folks who see the world through a different lens than I do. But perhaps it could be worth discussing?

The idea that Christianity should supply the moral basis for public life is frought with difficulties, depending on how narrowly or widely one defines the terms "Christianity" and "moral basis."I'm sure that the every-increasing number of nominal and non-Christians .... and "nones" .... in the US are very wary of the idea in general without even dealing with specific issues.

The culture war Christian kills others for the faith. Whereas the authentic Christian is willing to die for the faith. The culture war Christian says that the poor are at fault for their poverty. The authentic Christian embraces poverty as the surest avenue to paradise. Francis of Assisi embraced poverty because he saw how wars were over greed and domination by selfish people. The culture war Christians are watchful that Pope Francis embrace the domination issues. Whereas authentic Christians embrace Francis as one who gives an example of following Jesus.

Jim, I'm not so sure there was a lot of unity, even in the original response. EJ Dionne and MS Winters might have thought there was terrible overreaching in principle. I did not. Notre Dame and Steubenville sued Obama's administration. But many Catholic institutions did NOT sue Obama. I think a lot of Catholics did not think the opposition to the mandate was justified, even from the beginning. They may not have spoken up. But that didn't mean they agreed. And many women--including many Catholic women responded to the "war on women" meme. I think it would be interesting to ask the leadership of Catholic institutions about what they would do about coverage, apart from the pressure from the Church, on the one hand, and the government, on the other.

Now some for-profit businesses are joining religiously affiliated nonprofits in challenging the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate. These businesses are doing it for profit reasons and do not care about the contraception issue. The bishops are trumping their challenge on moral grounds although a vast majority of the church practice and do not think it is wrong. The reason Jim and others are confused is that Catholics have supported the bishops as a "us against them" issue while they definitely want coverage for contracepttives. 

Cathleen, thanks.  What are some areas and issues where you believe that Catholicism could offer a helpful, critical perspective on American life today?

This is really lovely, Cathleen -- thanks for the link to your essay, as well as to the blog post.

I worked as a paralegal at a big Manhattan law firm for a couple of years after college, and always hated the billable hour (and everything involved with billing, especially the endemic chiseling: if you work past 8, you can bill a client for a car home! if you have to walk crosstown to deliver some papers, you can bill them when you stop for lunch!).

Now I'm an academic, and while there are problems with a job that never really ends -- where all hours could, theoretically, be work hours, and where one can continually feel guilty for not working, whether it's Thursday midnight or Saturday afternoon -- I still feel that my work is more positively integrated with my life. I can adjust (many, though not all) parts of my schedule so that I can make an afternoon doctor's appointment, or attend a family member's birthday, or go to the park on a warm spring Tuesday just because I feel like it. I can work at home with my family, or in a coffee shop. It's still work (and not all of it is fun), but there's freedom to choose how and when to do much of it, and the freedom to have more of a life alongside and as a part of it.

I can attest to the problems to the billable hour mentality. I was a senior partner in a world-wide consulting firm and while there were benefits and satisfaction in this job, it also had many negative aspects. You are "always" on the so-called tread mil. Once you had a good year, (e.g., you handsomely exceeed your billable hours and revenue targets), you have to do it all over again next year. What's worse is that your revenue targets for the new year is based on last year. Thus, you have to increase your revenue every year (at least in consulting). 

After 16 years of consulting, I was fortunate to be a national expert in my specialty, and took a senior executive job in a large corporation. This was a wise move. I had more time for my family, and my income and wealth-generating opportunities were significantly better. This, I admit, is not the norm. However, while Cathleen makes good points about the billable hour mentality, there are few solutions save for a change in type of employment or vocation (e.g., academia, corporate, non-profit). This requires a reassessment of what your goals and how you intend to balance your family and professional life. 

As for embracing and living a more Christian life, everyday, I applaud those that can do it the way Cathleen mentions. Each of us strives to do God's will and we all have different means to that end. Nevertheless, I found this article interesting. For young  and eager college graduates, breaking the Protestan ethic and the goal of earning a good living will be difficult for most Catholics. Unfortunately, in law and consulting firms that is the price you have to pay if you want to break into partnership or become a national expert and earn a lot of money. For some, money may not be their goal, but even to earn $250,000 per year will require significant sacrifices. At some point, many will serach for a better solution to the billable hour mentality. Perhaps, not allowing the billable hour industry to dominate your entire career is the answer. Move on to a similar demanding but more managable work environment, once you gain sufficient experience and made a name for yourself as a lawyer or consultant.



Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment